3 Peaks Challenge: Day 3 – Mt. Katahdin, ME

For those who aren’t aware, I recently participated in a charity mountain climbing event called the Three Peaks Challenge where a group of us climbed the three tallest peaks in the Northeast US in three consecutive days.  Not only was this a physical challenge due to the actual climbing, it was also one due to all the driving you had to do to get to each mountain.  We raised money for The Conservation Fund, with the total currently around $15,000.  Donations are still open if you’re interested in supporting this great charity.  We felt the charity and the event were well aligned, and that became even clearer as we did the climbs and tried to respect the fragile land around the paths we hiked and climbed.

It was, in a word, amazing.  Below is a recounting of our first day on Mt. Katahdin in Northern Maine.  You can also read about Day 1 – Mt. Mansfield (VT) and Day 2 – Mt. Washington (NH). I try to share my experience on the climb as well as tips around gear, training, and – most importantly – mindset.

A special shout out to The Clymb, where I was able to pick up most of my gear at amazing prices. I got some really high end stuff, and am glad I had it. If you’re not a member, join today (for free)!


This was the day I thought I had figured it all out, but was definitely in the worst position logistically, save for one or two things. On all other days, I had packed my fleece and regretted the space it took up given that I never used it.  On all other days, I had done a very good job managing my clothing so I wasn’t wearing anything too sweat-drenched or making foolish decisions about what to take off or put on.

I screwed up on day three.

I wore a thermal compression shirt (same one I wore on Mansfield – yes, we did laundry one day), and was very quickly overheating in the low forest. It was a pleasant, if not slightly (or at least comparatively) warm morning, and Katahdin has some good incline after the first 10% or so goes by.  I quickly sweated through that shirt, and swapped it for a short sleeve dry-fit mesh shirt from Dakota Grizzly.  This was my first time not wearing something skin tight, and first time in short sleeves. It was warm, so I thought I was ok. I also took off the bottom sections of my convertible pants to make them into shorts. I had a pair of CW-X compression/stability pants (ok, tights) on underneath that also had some mesh areas for breathability. Since I was warm, I appreciated the chance to cool down a bit.

We got to the point where a couple of guys in our group were going to turn back due to exhaustion and knee issues from the day before, which was a good place to stop and change clothes for the upper areas, which we figured would be colder.  The rain also started to hit at this point.  Instead of doing something smart like putting on a different shirt and transforming my shorts back into pants, I just put my rain jacket back on. That was a decision I would regret for the next five hours.

Early on, pre-freezing, enjoying the scenery

My other big mistake was not taking the extra 30 seconds to put my pant-bottoms into the extra plastic bags I brought before putting them in my pack. As a result, they got soaked so I couldn’t put them back on if I wanted to (and I did).  Overall, the theme was setting myself up to be cold when I had everything I needed not to be cold right at my disposal.

On the plus side, I had fumbled with my poles for two days, and left them behind on the third. I didn’t use them at all on Mansfield except when I’d get them caught on rocks I was trying to descend as they were sticking down from my pack where I had lashed them on. I gave them a shot on Washington, and decided I did better without them (they took too much attention to use, and I was better off attending to my footsteps and hand positions). Then one of the straps came out of its mounting, which made the decision for me for day three, but I would have left them behind anyway.  I also did a good job bringing my water proof gloves that I bought after Mansfield.  They were crucial. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring the second paid I bought, which were both water proof and insulated. They would have been very welcomed additions on the summit.

I also didn’t bring my fleece after ‘learning’ what a waste it was on the other mountains. I would have put it on for Katahdin for sure.  I did have another insulated compression pull-over I could have put on, but never had another chance to change without over-exposing myself to the elements.  As the zipper on my rain jacket was really unreliable, once I got it zipped, I didn’t want to risk it not zipping again, so I wasn’t willing to take the exposure and chance to keep being exposed. FYI – I would never recommend a Sierra Designs product to someone after this experience.

I also did much better with food this time as I found myself extremely depleted on Washington. I brought a sandwich (which I didn’t eat, some peanut M&Ms I bought the night before, and also packed two of my newbodi.es nutrition bars and a package of beef jerky (which was a HUGE favorite for me on this trip – really hit the spot again and again).  Fuel wasn’t an issue on day three.

The climb
Katahdin started with my saying to one of my teammates, “This is a joke.” If I hadn’t packed more food with me, these words would have served me well with necessary carbs when I would later eat them several times over.

The joke was the early forest section. It is a really well-kept, shallow-incline, pleasant walk. I wouldn’t even call it a hike – it’s a simple nature walk. Soft paths without much steepness, lovely scenery and pleasant weather made for an easy start. Hubris set in. We quickly got to the steps, which a crew was working on extending higher up – kudos to the men and women tending to Baxter Park and Katahdin specifically. It’s very-well maintained (probably the best of the three, save for the summit of Washington).  Sure, steps get tiring, but they’re still easy in general.  And the rise and run was very manageable.

We made it to more of a forest hike like we had seen on the other two peaks, and got a bit hotter and spent some real energy. Fine – not a joke, but nothing too bad.  We were cruising ahead of schedule and generally doing well. These pics are from the point where a couple of our group headed home due to their bodies being past their breaking points. This would have been the perfect spot to have a proper bite to eat and change my clothing. The rain was also about two minutes from hitting, so I had a window to protect myself. That was the start of the real joke, only this one was on me.

Looking down

What Katahdin had that the other two lacked was real, technical challenge.  They all took energy from you, and all had moments you had to think through.  Mansfield had more treacherous points than Washington, but looking back on both, I realized that they were so much easier than Katahdin.  People kept talking about the plateau at the top, so I expected Katahdin to be a piece of cake, and the early forest only confirmed that. The reality is that it is a very tough climb, and the hubris I had was working against me (for instance, in making poor clothing choices).

We quickly got to a few points in the forest climb that involved scaling some tricky boulders – some included rebar grabs that the Forest Service had inserted into the rock as there was no way you could scale them without the holds. While there were some very tough moments here, you came off each boulder feeling a bit energized by the mental challenge you faced. All the peaks involved physical challenge, but we really hadn’t had our minds put to task yet, and I (and others) really appreciated that.  It made things fun.

Looking up – notice the white mark
of the path going up and over

Once we broke out of the tree line, things were even more challenging, but I wouldn’t describe them as fun. We were engulfed in a cloud, and the wind had picked up considerably. It wasn’t as bad as on Mansfield, but probably in the 20-40 mph range when you consider the frequent gusts. This was a real issue as this part of the climb involved scaling piled up towers of limestone with a trail marked right over the peak. Steep, high, exposed and with nothing but a drop around you, for the acrophobic out there (me included), this was a very hard section to face. I will say that none of these feats of scaling what appeared to needles sticking up in to the air were as hard once you were on them as you thought they would be upon approaching them, but they were tricky and a bit scary. And we all had the recurring question of, “OK, I got up, but how on Earth are we going to get down this thing?” I kept reminding myself of moments like that over the other two days where I learned that the descents were never as hard as I feared, but I had a sneaking suspicion some of these would be. I was right on both counts. More on that in a moment.

The Summit
Walking on The Knife’s Edge

After this very steep, very rocky section, you come to the plateau, aptly named ‘The Knife’s Edge’. From what I hear, the view is amazing. The only view I had was of the same clouds I’d been living in for the past couple of hours. Add to that complete exposure to the wind, and it was a miserable place to be.  For about a mile and a half (roughly 25-30 minutes). Times two (out and back). I don’t mean to be negative about the beauty of the nature around us, but it wasn’t a happy time in my life, for sure. The was a real issue and a real benefit, though.

Trying to smile

The real issue was that the cold and relative lack of physical exertion meant that my upper body really stiffened up.  I was concerned because I needed my upper body quite a bit to get up to this point, and knew I’d need it going back down. While I knew I’d warm up again after using my arms and chest/back muscles a bit, I was concerned with how long that would take since it was still going to be cold, wet and windy on the rocks, and whether that stiffness would put me at greater risk of falling (remember, there’s not much to fall onto as the rocks were mini-peaks of their own).

The real benefit was a serious amount of time to yourself. This is only a benefit if you choose to use it as such, and I did just that.  See the next section for more on this.

Getting down the rock section was definitely easier than I feared, but there were a couple of rocks that were truly dangerous ascents for us all, requiring a lot of coaching, some people backing off so another could attempt them, and lots of spotting. No one was injured or fell (unlike on Mansfield), but we were clearly at a much higher level of risk and danger than we had been.  And my concern about being too stiff definitely played out as I started the descent, but I made a point of moving my arms a lot, and choosing to use them even when I didn’t need to so they’d be primed by the time I really needed them.

What did I learn (aka the mind of the climb)?
After we hit the official summit, I took off back for the rocks and had a very frank discussion with myself. My discussion was around what I had already achieved, and how much the mind works for and against us.

I was talking to myself about each of these little peaks of (or, as I viewed them, massive, thin, treacherous cliffs of peril) limestone and how I had a very loud voice inside me saying it wasn’t safe to move ahead and I’d fall and die. That voice was telling me that my knee was hurting, my muscles were spent, and I wasn’t a climber or someone who was ok with heights. Let’s call that voice “Bob”.  Bob is a pessimistic, reality-distorting idiot. I kept proving that each time I JFDI’ed a peak.  For those who don’t know what that means, it means Just Fantastically Do It.  Only it isn’t “Fantastically”, but that does work and sounds more positive. I learned a couple of years ago not to question the tough things I needed to do, but rather just get on with it, and I’d soon find a) they’re done, and b) they weren’t so bad. Bob would ruminate about the horribleness, never start, and never accomplish.  Idiot.

So I talked to myself about how clearly my body was (and is) fully capable of all of this. I’ve been working out like a mad man for a while now, was in the best shape of my life, and had already climbed 2.5 of the three peaks. There was more than enough proof that I could do this. I, the guy who hated running and spent my childhood on the couch eating Oreos, not only was a runner, but had even raced (and done well in that race), and had climbed two of the three tallest mountains around already.  I’m a dad and husband. After weighing 250 when I was 14, I now have a six pack and pecks.  I have a large staff and lots of responsibility at work. I have an MBA.  I’m clearly a capable person. The only thing that can stop me is my failure to either recognize my capabilities or to deny their validity or applicability. I would not allow either.

No. The mind is the sole hindrance for so much of what we can achieve. If you allow for yourself to be as great as you are – and don’t shy away from it, excuse it, explain it away or diminish it – you will be great and do great things. Humility is a lovely virtue, but it can go too far. The trick is not to have humility with yourself to yourself. That is actually not humility but self-doubt and a lack of self-exceptance.  Surely you can agree that you should be free of self-doubt and accept yourself.

Back to the base
The remainder of the descent was fine, and similar to the other mountains – down is easier than up, and you forget how long the trail is and start to question why you’re still not at the parking lot and if you took a wrong turn.  I ran a little bit, but I had a lot of debris in my shoe, and my blisters were really a problem, so I mostly walked.

I really enjoyed the scenery, and had great conversation and company along the way. I stopped to take some photos, which I’m really glad I did as the views were worth taking with me as my last memories rather than thoughts of freezing on the plateau.

Beautiful lower-forest during the descent
I finished among the first part of my group, as I’d been able to do the previous two days, which reinforced my feeling of being healthy, fit and capable, but also allowed me to take time to think back through the event without getting caught in the rush to get back on the road that invariably came when the final hikers came back.  I was exhausted and weary, but had a massive smile on my face and wasn’t even really aware of the exhaustion and weariness as I was overcome by what was essentially euphoria. The high-fiving set in as people got back to the cars.
While these highs set in, so did something else – a sort of disbelief that there wasn’t another peak to conquer the next day. I was sort of crestfallen by the idea that there wasn’t something more to do (ok, there was an epic drive home, but that wasn’t as inspiring, I will admit). This feeling, as sad as it was, is also an impetus for doing more. If I went back to the couch and the cookies, then the feeling would be justified. If, however, I felt this way and decided to set another goal I could conquer, then the feeling serves a purpose beyond basic sadness or emptiness, and quickly fades as you gear up for the next challenge.
3 Down
I had a race 10 days later, another one 10 days after that, a half marathon in the fall, and a desire to get into road biking.  I have plenty of peaks to challenge myself on.  How about you?  How will you take one achievement and use it to fuel the next? The answer to that is another way you will enlighten.your.body.

About bryan falchuk

bryan falchuk is the founder of newbodi.es, a certified personal trainer, behavior change specialist and the best-selling author of "Do a Day". bryan coaches people on their whole health - the physical, mental and emotional combination of wellness that we need to thrive and change our lives.

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